Despite my grandparents being from just outside Manchester, it took me an awfully long time to actually visit the city. In this formative 20-odd years, I’d manage to build up a tremendous antipathy, based largely and possibly absurdly around one song.
Fool’s Gold by The Stone Roses plagued me for years. Millions may disagree but I found it utterly unlistenable — it never starts, gets going or finishes. Yet every university indie night would be killed by its appearance — and the simian shuffling of the straggly-haired Mancunians who came to symbolise the city in my mind. Almost to a man, they’d be the ones who’d bullishly and unsolicitedly insist their hometown was the best place on Earth, despite all evidence to the contrary. It’s a trait almost entirely reserved for cities with a chippy inferiority complex.
Whether this was a fair representation of Manchester or not was immaterial. It utterly framed my perception until I started, for one reason or other, having to go there fairly regularly.
Staying a night before an early flight, going to a gig or cricket match, meeting friends, covering new museum openings, my wife getting a three-month work placement… it all started to add up. And one key theme emerged — despite a stubborn determination not to, I always thoroughly enjoyed both the experience and the city. This is partly because Manchester has improved in the past 15 to 20 years. The list of top-drawer new projects — the Imperial War Museum North, The Lowry cultural centre and accompanying mega-makeover of the Salford Quays, the National Football Museum — is impressive. These keep on coming too, with the HOME cinema/theatre/gallery hybrid, south of the city centre, opening this year.
But such flagship projects don’t create Manchester’s energy — they merely add to it. Unlike many English cities, central Manchester feels distinct. It aims higher than timid blandness and can’t be pinned to a single character. Grand Victoriana, hulking red-brick warehouses, a raucous gay village and shimmering malls happily rub shoulders. And within it, the defiantly old school, glossily new and endearingly niche get along just fine.
The ludicrous preconceptions are now well and truly gone — and any excuse to nip back in and delve even further down the city’s many rabbit holes is thoroughly welcomed.
Art & shopping
Less berserkly grungy is the Manchester Craft and Design Centre. Inside a former Victorian craft market, artists at 26 studio-shops create glass jewellery, painted ceramic tiles or shape pewter into vases. Wall Of Art features compelling photos of street signs and buildings, while Kaper’s walls are covered with cartoonish owls, toucans and cockatoos sculpted from paper by artist Kate Kelly. Elsewhere, quirky specialisms rule. Menswear shop Oi Polloi has niche New Zealand and Japan brands, while Piccadilly Records’ vinyl is sorted according to possibly-made-up genres (Balearic, Disco-not-Disco…).
The Northern Quarter’s real stalwart, though, is Fred Aldous. It’s been selling art and craft materials since 1886. Rows of paint, cotton thread and glitter line the lower floor, but up top it’s all quirky gifts, geeky stationary and model plane kits. Still, if you’re in the market for a gorilla-shaped eraser or finger puppets, this is the spot.
Where to eat
Bakerie focuses on sandwiches and stews (the beef shin chilli con carne is a winner). But there are also wine-sampling machines, whereby you buy credit behind the bar, then sample 30ml, 75ml or 125ml measures of 16 different wines.
If unusual doesn’t quite do it, however, and you want some kitsch, head to the Richmond Tea Rooms in the Gay Village. With Alice In Wonderland decor, it’s always packed for what must surely be Britain’s campest afternoon tea.
The other generally safe bet for value dining is Chinatown — although the best spot here happens to be Japanese. Yuzu is tiny, and the menu sticks to fairly unimaginative staples done exceptionally well. The secret is out after a glowing Jay Rayner review, so make reservations for dinner — although you can’t go too far wrong rocking up for the £7.95 chicken katsu at lunchtime.
The most obvious symbol of new Manchester is Australasia, which is part of the slick and shiny Spinningfields complex. It offers modern Australian cuisine, with liberal pilferings from around Asia. It’s so knowingly cool that there’s a strong temptation to hate it — but the food is excellent, particularly if someone else is picking up the bill.
But it’s often the places that make no attempt to be on nodding terms with modernity that appeal the most. El Rincon de Rafa, hidden down an unpromising back street, feels like a cavernous, traditional Spanish cerveceria. And the idea that tapas dining may have become cool at some point seems never to have crossed the owners’ minds.
The Castle Hotel in the Northern Quarter has a similar old-school vibe, but with the added bonus of having a small room at the back where musicians are given a break as they’re starting out on the circuit.
Just north of the Northern Quarter, Marble Arch is a vision of Victorian tiling. It’s also the flagship boozer for Marble, Manchester’s best craft brewery. The Chocolate Marble — a beautifully rounded dark beer with chocolate malts — is the one to make a beeline for.
The city’s best beer selection, however, can be found at Cask among Castlefields’ red-brick nirvana. It doesn’t have a website or play up its heritage — it’s simply an excellent pub with great beers from around Europe.
For something more energetic, Gorilla is the sort of place you can stagger into for a hangover-busting brunch, then not leave again until 4am. The bar’s cruisy during the day, the food’s surprisingly good, and eclectic DJs and live bands play the club room at the back.
If inexplicable is what floats your boat, Dusk Til Pawn fits the bill. The window display — all old TVs, shoes, sports equipment and guitar amps — says ‘pawn shop’. Yet open the door, and it’s a darkened cocktail bar, where bartenders know their top-drawer rums and pour out homemade concoctions such as the pawnographic, with caramel rum, chocolate, vanilla and sea salt. It defies categorisation — and that’s what Manchester does best.
Top 10 local tips
02 The roomy, apartment-style The Light Aparthotel is the best accommodation option in the Northern Quarter — near top bars and shops.
03 Even if you hate Manchester United, the tours of Old Trafford are fascinating — from a logistical more than footballing perspective.
04 Trains from Manchester Piccadilly will take you to the airport considerably faster than the new Metrolink line.
05 Deansgate Locks — big in the Madchester heyday — is a sorry self-parody these days, kept alive by student drinks promotions.
06 Many BBC and ITV shows film at MediaCityUK in Salford Quays. Audience tickets are free, but require booking in advance.
07 Free MetroShuttle buses ply three routes in the city centre — handy if you’re a footsore shopper.
08 For laughs, the Frog and Bucket is the most intimately likeable comedy club.
09 After major sporting events at Old Trafford, take the tram a couple of stops in the wrong direction then switch back to beat heinous queues.
10 Day travelcards cost just £5 if bought after 9.30am, but £7 when purchased before then.
The Lonely Planet England and The Rough Guide to England guidebooks skim the surface of Manchester — covering the whole country means the city doesn’t get drilled down into.
Secret Manchester, by Phil Page and Ian Littlechilds, digs the quirkier trivia out. RRP: £14.99. (Amberley Publishing)
24 Hour Party People, by Tony Wilson, tells the first-hand story of Manchester’s music scene in the ’80s and ’90s. RRP: £12.99. (Channel 4)
Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life, by Elizabeth Gaskell, is arguably the classic novel of Victorian Manchester. RRP: £7.99. (Penguin Classics)
Published in the October 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)